As the government of Ras Al Khaimah makes the necessary changes to drive growth forward and transition to a knowledge-based economy, one thing is clear: education and educational reform are of prime importance. Many of the firms that are today moving into RAK or that the government hopes to attract are in need of employees with specialised skill sets. To maximise the benefits of the growing economy and to encourage the new businesses to hire local employees, RAK is working to ensure that its schools are producing the high-quality graduates that are competitive and attractive to international companies.

Education has had strong support from the government in RAK. Although the education system has shown consistent development in the preceding decades, education authorities are now expending greater energy to bolster tertiary education and to raise the level of pedagogy and original research.

One important measure will be the establishment of a council by RAK’s ruler, Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi, which will regulate and monitor institutions of higher education in the emirate. The regulating body will be responsible for guaranteeing that proper standards are being met, and will have the authority to close under-performing schools. The council, which will be composed of academics in RAK, will be a catalyst for expanding academia and will be aimed at protecting students’ rights to a quality educational experience.

HISTORY: RAK’s first formal boys’ school opened in the early 1950s and was followed by a girls’ school in 1956. Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, who ruled RAK between 1960 and late 2010, emphasised that education is a government priority. In his expansion efforts, Sheikh Saqr staffed the first schools with teachers from Arab countries such as Egypt and Kuwait to teach core subjects, including maths, Arabic and religion.

The education system grew to roughly 20 schools and about 4000 students by 1962. Standardised academic criteria for public schools later evolved in 1985 following the formation of the UAE in 1971. The country’s education system continued to grow and today includes a number of public and private institutions.

ORGANISATION: Three main public entities oversee the education sector. The Ministry of Education (MoE) is responsible for K-12 schooling across the UAE, and the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research (MOHESR) oversees tertiary education. Set up in 2000 and operating under the MOHESR, the Commission for Academic Accreditation (CAA) is responsible for university licensing and programme accreditation.

Though several private institutions operate in RAK, the MoE operates the majority of the emirate’s K-12 schools. The MOHESR runs the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCTs), which is a group of universities spread throughout the country. One HCT campus is located in RAK and is divided between a men’s and a women’s college. Private organisations operate the majority of the emirate’s tertiary education institutions.

THE SCHOOL SYSTEM: The MoE divides the school system into four stages: kindergarten (ages 4-5), elementary (ages 6-11), intermediate (ages 12-14) and secondary (ages 15-17). Public education from kindergarten through university is free for UAE citizens, and education is compulsory for nationals through grade nine ( the intermediate level). The federal government laid out an education reform roadmap in the early 2000s, known as Education 2020. The initiative indicated a number of planned advancements for the education sector through 2020.

The roadmap’s primary aim is to move the education system beyond rote learning, a common practice in the UAE since the writing of the National Curriculum in 1985. The ministry is working to replace this practice with a system that encourages students to utilise practical skills and develop critical thinking.

In early 2010 the MoE expanded its Education 2020 programme with an additional strategy known as 10×10, which focuses on specific changes for better preparing students for the job market. The methods of 10×10 will also be used to measure the overall progress of students as they move through the higher education system. Furthermore, 10×10 includes 50 objectives for improving student participation and academic experience. This includes standards for recruiting student counsellors, incorporating student input into the curriculum, making health education mandatory and revising the length of compulsory school attendance.

BY THE NUMBERS: According to RAK’s Department of Economic Development (RAK DED), a total of 91 government schools and 24 private schools, not including those of higher education, operated in the emirate in the 2010/11 academic year. These figures can be broken down into 16 government kindergartens, 24 elementary schools, 16 intermediate schools, 13 secondary schools and 21 multiple stage schools. Also included in this total is one vocational institution, the Practical Technology Academy. Local private schools operating in the 2010/11 academic years were composed of two kindergartens and 22 unspecified schools.

There were 1241 classes in government institutions, not including higher education, during the 2010/11 school year. Male classes made up 646 of the total, and female classes numbered 595. The number of classes in private schools for the same academic year was 752.

The RAK DED reports that nearly 31,000 students enrolled in government schools in 2010/11; some 16,000 were male and around 15,000 were female. The majority of these students – over 28,000 – were UAE nationals. Private schools enrolled nearly 16,000 students, about half as many as government institutions for the same academic year. Male and female enrolment levels were relatively even in these schools.

In government secondary schools, roughly 1500 students studied the humanities while 600 were dedicated to the sciences in 2010/11. The gap between the number of students in humanities and science disciplines has widened in recent years. In 2008/09, around 1200 government-enrolled secondary students studied the humanities and 800 focused on the sciences.

Although no longer the majority, expatriate teachers made up a significant portion of the faculty at local public schools in 2010/11. Teachers from the UAE totalled over 1800, while expatriate teachers equalled about 1000. Expatriates made up a far smaller percentage within the education administration, with over 400 administrators heralding from the UAE against just 41 expatriates in government schools that year.

The RAK HCT men’s and women’s campuses counted a total of 1866 students in 2010, up from around 1600 in 2009 and about 1500 in 2008. Other universities in the emirate are also seeing enrolment numbers rise. Enrolment at Ittihad University, for example, rose from 554 students in 2008 to 670 in 2010. American University in RAK (AURAK) saw enrolment jump from 71 students in 2009 to 158 in 2010, according to the most recent data available from the RAK DED.

MAKING IMPROVEMENTS: Despite increased enrolment at several RAK universities, the education sector as a whole faces a number of challenges, including a lack of sufficient resources such as computers, whiteboards and laboratories for science courses. Libraries are generally below par, there is an overall shortage of teachers and recruiting has been difficult for some institutions. Furthermore, low TOEFL scores are a legitimate concern for the quality of graduates.

Several steps are being taken to address these challenges. The MoE has increased its attention to the low levels of English proficiency and TOEFL scores, for example. Meanwhile, a local non-governmental organisation, the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research (SSFPR), is working on several strategies to improve education. Founded in 2009, the SSFPR is focused on issues in RAK and the UAE and is aimed at developing a body of education policy research by collaborating with international researchers and the UAE federal government.

Alongside its policy research initiative, the foundation runs a number of training programmes for teachers. For instance, the institute launched a teacher development programme for both private and public school educators that aims to improve classroom management skills. The programme also hopes to add a mentorship skills component to the curriculum in the future.

Another project is a teacher exchange programme to foster a richer approach for modern education in RAK schools. Twelve teachers participated in the 2012 trip, which was the programme’s first. Participants travelled to Basel, Switzerland where they observed methods and interacted with faculty at three different schools. A Swiss group of teachers will travel to RAK in September and visit three schools.

The RAK Teacher’s Network (RAK TN) is arguably the SSFPR’s most popular programme. Founded in the spring of 2010, the network had over 175 participants by May 2011. RAK TN is geared towards increasing interaction among teachers and improving teaching methods at local public schools. Feedback has been positive, facilitating high levels of collaboration. According to an academic paper given at the 2011 Symposium of the Gulf Comparative Education Society, the network’s website was visited almost 13,000 times between January 2010 and May 2011, with 3500 first-time visitors from over 70 countries and territories.

The SSFPR also provides a number of scholarships and grants for research in RAK that focus on health and urban planning. The foundation awards two doctoral research scholarships and one open-ended grant to which both PhD students and faculty can apply. Doctoral research awardees are given a year-long grant of roughly Dh50,000 ($13,600), and grants are awarded on shorter bases and their value determined on a case-by-case basis. All awardees conduct research in the emirate while based at the SSFPR, and they are expected to produce at least one policy brief or two working papers throughout the stipulated research period. Additionally, the SSFPR provides grants to teachers of all nationalities working in RAK schools to pursue higher education studies. The SSFPR has a total yearly budget of Dh200,000 ($54,000) for its various grants.

TERTIARY EDUCATION: A number of universities operate in RAK. HCT is the largest with close to 2000 students attending the men’s and women’s campuses in 2010. Over 1300 HCT students in 2010 were female and 550 male, and this ratio has remained relatively constant in the past several years. The enrolment difference between men and women is partly attributed to the high level of recruitment for the national police force from among recent high school graduates. All of HCT RAK’s students are UAE citizens, and enrolment has grown by about 5% annually. Many students take jobs with the public sector upon graduation.

Of the HCTs’ 18 campuses, RAK’s have the best record for Emiratisation, or the practice of hiring UAE citizens. As of October 2011, 24% of its employees were citizens: 6% of the school’s faculty and 50% of its administrative staff were Emirati. The institution aims to achieve 30% Emiratisation in the near future and has a long-term goal of employing a 40-50% national staff. Emiratisation is a high priority among HCT campuses, and the government gives each college an annual budget of Dh10m ($2.7m) to recruit more local staff.

AURAK was set up in 2009 and is a semi-governmental university. The university is accredited by the MoE and currently offers four programmes: computer engineering, electronics and communication, business administration and biotechnology. By fall 2012 the school intends to offer additional programmes in civil engineering, English translation and accounting.

Over 200 students attended AURAK during the 2011/12 academic year. This represents a significant rise in enrolment from 2010/11 when 115 students were enrolled in the university. The school has plans to double enrolment in 2012/13, and hopes to reach 600 students in four years’ time.

Located next to AURAK is the University of Bolton’s RAK campus. The school has nine academic programmes, with business and engineering being the most popular. About 400 students are currently enrolled in the university, which has set a goal of enrolling an additional 300 students for the 2012/13 academic year, bringing that year’s total to roughly 700. Bolton hopes to expand to 1000 students within five years.

Established in 1999, Ittihad University is RAK’s first privately funded tertiary institution, and 65% of its 516 students are UAE nationals. Ittihad provides lower-cost higher education through its several colleges, offering courses in engineering, IT, arts and education.

RESEARCH: In May 2009 École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), a leading research-based university, set up a research centre in RAK in cooperation with the local government. The institute is a joint venture by the Swiss and RAK governments and focuses on graduate-level research and education. The RAK Investment Authority (RAKIA), a free zone in the emirate, is the sponsor of the institute’s research activities EPFL Middle East, as the centre is known, currently has 10 PhD students and 20 MSc students. By the end of 2012, there will be over 50 regular students and 40 MSc-level projects completed. Examples of research projects at EPFL Middle East include energy policy for the MENA region, sustainable architecture, smart grids, water resource management, sustainable transportation and wind engineering. Students complete their first year of coursework at the Swiss campus and have the opportunity to come to RAK for their second year of studies, which includes industry internships and a master’s thesis. The centre hopes to eventually have as many as 200 people studying at EPFL Middle East.

EPFL set up a campus in RAK due to the emirate’s focus on technological advancement and economic diversification. “EPFL and the government of RAK have the common goal and vision to develop graduate research and education as a foundation for the knowledge- and innovation-based economy that RAK aspires to become,” said Franco Vigliotti, the dean of EPFL Middle East. “In this pursuit, we feel that RAK is well positioned, as it does not have oil or gas and therefore has diversified its activities from the beginning, thus creating a strong industrial base,” he told OBG.

Although there are no faculty at EPFL Middle East as yet, the institute plans to employ five professors and the preliminary phases of recruitment are under way. Each professor will focus on one of the centre’s five themes of study: energy, wind engineering, built environment, transport and water resources. The research projects are hosted in 10 laboratories at the Swiss campus and coordinated with EPFL Middle East.

The research centre also has executive education for professionals in the form of workshops and tailored courses concentrating on one of four areas: transportation, energy, water systems and intelligent governance for large urban systems. Perhaps EPFL Middle East’s most important contribution to RAK’s economy is its focus on industry-academia interaction and partnerships – a connection that will likely bring significant economic benefits to the emirate in the long term, as has been the case in Switzerland.

MEDICAL EDUCATION: Set up in 2006, the RAK Medical and Health Sciences University (RAK MHSU) is enhancing the sector by providing students with opportunities for specialised education. The school offers four bachelor’s programmes in medicine and surgery, dental surgery, pharmacy and nursing. It also offers a registered nurse-bachelor of science in nursing (RN-BSN) bridge programme, as well as master’s programmes in nursing and pharmacy practice/pharmaceutical chemistry. A master’s degree in health management will be RAK MHSU’s newest degree, and RAK Hospital, located next to the university’s campus, will be involved.

Enrolment continues to climb for RAK MHSU. The school opened with 26 students in 2006 and grew to 129 by 2008; 166 students are now attending the university. Undergraduate students currently comprise 25 nationalities, with the largest number of students coming from India, Iraq, the UAE and Syria. The university is host to quality, specialised education and trains prospective medical staff, which are much needed in RAK due to a shortage of nurses. Although still relatively new, RAK MHSU will play an important role in both the education and health sectors.

OUTLOOK: As RAK makes strides in the direction of industrial and economic development, future growth in the emirate depends heavily upon the strength of the education system. Government and private sector leaders are actively working to upgrade the quality and scope of education. Institutions such as the SSFPR and MoE are implementing important measures to improve teaching standards and English-language acquisition across the board. Given the correlation between education and a strong economy, the impact of the government and other actors’ reforms should have a strong impact on growth in the emirate in the long run.